Former Canary striker Chris Sutton has spoken publicly for the first time about the eye injury that forced his early retirement from the professional game – and ended any prospect of the one-time Hellesdon High School pupil finishing his career back where it all started.
The 35-year-old had long made it clear that he would love to see out the last of his playing days at Carrow Road and having moved his family back to Norfolk in the summer of 2006 after an unsuccessful, half-season move to Birmingham City, so that prospect gained new momentum.
There were, however, two flies in that ointment – the reluctance of then boss Nigel Worthington to take a chance on the former City Player of the Year following his disappointing spell at St Andrews and a double groin op in the summer that left Sutton way short of match form and fitness.
In the end, Worthington – with virtually his last managerial act – would plump for Dion Dublin ahead of the recovering Sutton; the latter would, however, find a friend in his ex-Bhoys boss Martin O'Neill who signed Sutton for Aston Villa in October, 2006. Two months later and in a 3-0 home defeat by Manchester United, the former Blackburn Rovers and Chelsea striker would end the game complaining of blurred vision. He would never play football again.
“I miss it a lot,” said Sutton, speaking at Carrow Road yesterday – fresh from being voted into the club's 'Greatest Ever XI' by the Canary supporters.
“It's obviously not the same, but I have to get on with it. I had a fairly long career; disappointed to finish the way that it did, but luckily for me it did happen ten years ago – I can just move on now and try some other sports.”
The No1 love in that regard is cricket. He will be found this summer on the playing fields of Norfolk – opening the batting for Sheringham CC where the vision issue is of less concern.
“I can see fine with both eyes, it's just if I close my left eye my vision is affected – my right eye is heavily blurred – but [otherwise] it's absolutely fine,” said the one-time City striker, now with five, young children to keep a beady eye on too.
Looking back to the summer of July, 2007, when the decision to retire was announced by his agent, Tony McGill, Sutton said there was no real option.
“It was an easy decision in the end,” he admitted. “I saw different specialists and they all came to the same conclusion – that it was better for me to stop.
“I saw three different people and they all, pretty much, said the same thing so it was an easy decision in that respect.”
Mother Nature, it seems, wasn't about to ride to his rescue; in Sutton's case time was going to prove a healer. “It hasn't healed and that's that really.
“The problem I have now is that I only have one good eye now and if anything happens to that, then that's it. And it just really wasn't worth it in the fact that the chances of actually damaging that eye are slim, but if you've only got one good eye it's going to be a big, big problem if I do damage that eye.”
It was a decision that ended any hope of a Carrow Road return. “I'd said before that I would have loved to have come back,” said Sutton, whose ?5 million move to Blackburn Rovers in the summer of 1994 was a then British record transfer fee. The 21-year-old did not disappoint as his formidable, 'SAS' strike partnership with Alan Shearer blasted Rovers to the Premier League title.
Equally adept at centre-half, the general feeling remained that even at 33 Sutton had more than enough left in the tank to breeze through a season or two in the Championship – particularly if home in Roughton, near Cromer, was a mere 25 minutes from City's Colney training HQ as opposed to the three-hour haul across to Birmingham that another year at Villa offered. Worthington, however, wasn't for budging.
“It was a decision that wasn't mine – and that was that, really,” he said.
He was modesty itself when it came to yesterday's award – insisting that he just happened to be at the sharp end of one of the Canaries' 'Greatest Ever' teams. Indeed, four of his UEFA Cup colleagues – Ian Crook, Mark Bowen, Ian Culverhouse and Darren Eadie, plus manager Mike Walker – were likewise elevated to the club's 'Greatest Ever XI' yesterday.
“It's been very nice – it's been nice to see the players again and nice to win the award,” said Sutton, who saw off competition from the likes of Ron Davies, David Cross, Robert Fleck and Ted MacDougall to claim this weekend's 'Greatest Ever' striker crown alongside long-time favourite Iwan Roberts.
“There's a lot of competition and some really great strikers, so it's a really great honour to win this, but I was fortunate enough to be in a very good team – which does help.”
There is little doubt that Sutton is one of the recent greats – even if that ?10 million switch to Chelsea in the summer of 1999 failed to hit the heights everyone assumed. His year at The Bridge yielded just three goals.
A year later and O'Neill was riding to his rescue with a ?6 million switch to Parkhead and the chance to create one of the most feared strike partnerships in Scottish Premier League history with Swedish ace Henrik Larsson.
Together they would deliver three SPL titles, two Scottish Cups and one Scottish League Cup – as well as an appearance in the 2003 Uefa Cup final. In the midst of it, Sutton would receive the Scottish Professional Footballers' Association players' player of the year award in 2004.
“There is no doubt that Chris Sutton was one of the best striker partners I ever had,” said Larsson, writing on his own website as news of Sutton's retirement emerged last summer.
“We had a great understanding at Celtic and he was fantastic at reading the game and holding the ball up,” added the Bhoys legend.
“So I feel very sad for him because you want to retire from football when it is your decision – not when it is forced on you. But it's the right thing to do because he can't take the risk of playing on and doing something that could make his sight worse.”